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Race between man, machines relies on our grit

Kristen B. Morales

February 2, 2016

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There's one thing that will eventually separate us from our robot counterparts as more and more professions become automated: Grit.

No, not dirt, but instead qualities of tenacity and doggedness that contribute to success in human form. Those qualities are difficult to program in the world of artificial intelligence, says professor Thomas C. Reeves, and it just might be the one thing that keeps us in our jobs in the future.

Reeves, the featured speaker for the 2016 University of Georgia Founder's Day Lecture on Jan. 26 in the UGA Chapel, spoke on the advances of artificial intelligence and the ability for robots today to acquire "deep learning," or the ability to take in information and assess its value.

This deep learning, Reeves said, can have implications on our careers, no matter whether we work in a manufacturing plant or in an office.

"Most of us are comfortable with the idea of robotics taking over manufacturing jobs, but don't think about robots taking over the professions," said Reeves, who noted positions such as office receptionists, pharmacists and even writers have recently included robots among their ranks. "Today they are focused on building tasks that previously were made for humans — to listen and speak, read and write, to integrate information and make judgments."

Reeves also drew a comparison between a 1950s idea of how robots learn — by "stuffing" their computerized brains with information in order to know how to take commands — with the way courses are taught at the university level, particularly "massive open online courses," or MOOCs. Both are dominated by a teacher talking, required texts to read, and tests. The "three T's" as Reeves put it.

"MOOC critics criticize those courses, but they fail to turn that same critical lens on their own courses … The lessons don't seem to be filtering down into many of our higher education initiatives," he said. "But now we realize that knowledge is a spectrum of internal mental states ranging from simple facts to schema to general skills, automatic skills and mental models. … Higher forms of mental models create the basis of creativity and problem solving."

But because recent advances in artificial intelligence have closed this gap between our advanced mental states and what a robot is able to perceive, we now need to dig deeper. And that's where grit comes in.

What, Reeves asked, is the difference between knowing, caring and doing? Grit.

"Can our students achieve high levels of grit?" he asked the audience. "I think the University of Georgia's new experiential learning initiative is a great step in the right direction, but we must do more. I bet that if we looked at the background of our very best teachers, we would find that high expectations are part of that."

But higher-quality learning and instruction can't work alone to instill the qualities of "grit" — students need to meet their teachers halfway.

That combination, though, can mean a generation of successful young adults who are prepared to work alongside "professional" robots — and still out-perform them with skills that can't be programmed.

"So I call on our leaders, faculty and staff to look at what we're doing here," he said. "Universities have to prepare our graduates to survive in a rapidly changing world. One where the life-changing careers of today will be seen as museum exhibits."

Reeves spoke after UGA President Jere Morehead announced the recipients of this year's President's Medal, Frances "Abit" Massey and the late Jane Seddon Willson. The event also included a background on the founding and history of the university from Meredith Gurley Johnson, executive director of the UGA Alumni Association.

An annual celebration, the Founders Day Lecture is part of a week of festivities marking the growth and advances that have taken place since the university was chartered in 1785.